Games are a great way to learn a language – studies show we improve faster when we are happy and relaxed. For children, having fun is especially important for learning because they don’t have external drivers like work to push them forward. Also, learning a new activity or game will get your child used to processing detailed instructions in English.
You know best what will work for your individual child. Do they enjoy fast games, or slower, more methodical ones? It probably varies from day to day. There are a range of different types of games on the internet, and you can probably remember dozens from your own childhood. Here are some of my favourites from the classroom.
Learn English Kids has a good range of flashcard sets you can print and use for card games. You can print them in colour, or in black and white for your children to colour if you want something more special. Say the words out loud as you play games to reinforce vocabulary and help concentration.
Snap! – Deal the cards evenly between players. Players mustn’t look at their cards. Take it in turns to place one card, face-up, between you. When a card is placed on top of a matching card (word matches picture), the first player to shout "Snap!" wins all the cards that have been laid so far, adding them to their hand. The game continues until only one player has any cards left.
The Memory Game, or Pelmanism – This matching game is more thoughtful and less chaotic than Snap! Place all the cards face down and spread them out so they don’t touch each other. Players take it in turns to turn over two cards – if you get a matching pair you win that pair, and you get another go. The winner is the player who has won the most pairs at the end of the game.
Pencil and paper games
Stop the Bus – This game is always popular in the EFL classroom. Choose five categories, e.g., feelings, sports, adjectives, vegetables, fruits. Then choose a letter at random (by drawing from a bag, or using an online random picker) and players race down one thing in each category beginning with the letter. As soon as a player has one of each, they shout "Stop the bus!" at which point everyone has to stop writing. Players only score points for words which nobody else got, so this game teaches children to think beyond the obvious choice. First to ten points is the winner.
Famous People – This game is usually played using famous names, but can be adapted for any category – books, animals, countries… Each player writes a famous person’s name on a post-it, and sticks it on the forehead of the person to their right. Players take it in turns to ask one yes/no question at a time, to guess what’s on their forehead. The first to guess wins.
Games you can do on the move
Stuck on a long car journey, or in a queue at the supermarket? Here are some games that can be played on the move, with no equipment needed, to practise English and pass the time
The Minister’s Cat: This traditional "parlour game" has been played since Victorian times and is a great way to review adjectives and practice English stress-timing. All players clap out a 1,2,3,4 rhythm, in time with one another. (If you’re in a car, the driver should be exempt from the clapping!)
The first player says, in rhythm with the claps, "The minister’s cat is a (fat) cat." or whatever adjective they chose to use. The second player must then think of an adjective beginning with the last letter of the previous adjective, e.g., "The minister’s cat is a (terrible) cat." Play continues until someone can’t think of an adjective in time. What’s the longest rally you can do?
I Spy: goes "I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with…." followed by the first letter of the mystery object. If you want to practice yes/no questions, you can play the version I knew as a child, where up to ten questions are allowed, e.g., "Is it outside the car?" "Is it bigger than a football?". Another variation is to say the colour instead of the first letter.
I went shopping and I got: In this memory game, players add items to an imaginary shopping trip. For example, the first player says "I went shopping and I got a pineapple.", the second player, "I went shopping and I got a pineapple and some tea," and so on. When a player forgets an item, or hesitates too long, they are out of the game. This continues until one player is left.
Some families have a rule that the items bought must run in alphabetical order, eg "apples, bread, carrots..." This version will stretch your child’s vocabulary more, but is less of a work-out for their memory – it’s quite hard to get anyone out in this version!
Simon says: In this game, one player, "Simon", performs actions and tells the other players to copy, e.g., "Simon says touch your toes," but players must only follow when they hear the words "Simon says..." Anyone who responds to "Touch your toes," is out of the game.
A useful variation if you want to teach manners, is "Touch your toes, please"
There are lots of games on the BBC’s Cbeebies, and on Learn English Kids, including apps and quizzes. Learn English Kids also has ten tips on motivating your child. The more you explore, the more new ideas you and your child will have.
Keep sessions short (even ten minutes) depending on your child’s concentration level, and don’t be afraid to abandon activities which aren’t working out – teachers do this all the time! Have a few different ideas in mind so you can change if you need to. Give lots of praise, show your children how well they are doing, and be ready for them to surprise you with their capacity for learning.